Donald Trump says Iran is a threat to the region, but his administration might be the real danger.
- By Michael AxworthyMichael Axworthy is the author of Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know and Revolutionary Iran.
On June 14, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee that the Donald Trump administration’s Iran policy was still under development and had not yet been submitted to the president. But he conceded that the policy included the intention to “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”
This is another way of saying that the Trump administration’s official policy toward Iran will likely be regime change. If that proves the case, Washington will have inadvertently made itself a far greater danger to the stability of Middle East than Tehran.
This might sound like an apology for the Iranian regime. It is not. The current regime in Iran has many faults: It is repressive and authoritarian, abuses human rights and severely limits the legitimate aspirations to greater political freedom of its own people. Nonetheless, the faults of the regime and the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its supporters should not distort the picture. We need to see Iran’s foreign and security policy, and the alternatives on offer, as they are, rather than as the sum of all our fears, or indeed as a bogeyman derived primarily from the polarized debates of internal politics in the United States.
Let’s begin with Tillerson’s reasons for considering regime change. “We certainly recognize Iran’s continued destabilizing presence in the region, their payment of foreign fighters, their export of militia forces in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, their support for Hezbollah,” he explained in his congressional testimony. “And we are taking action to respond to Iran’s hegemony.”
But is Iran as destabilizing an influence in the Middle East as Tillerson suggests? Its rejectionist policy toward Israel, and its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah, can fairly be described as disruptive. The regime has made those policies a revolutionary talisman and a test of loyalty, even though they undermine Iran’s own interests.
But these policies are also an exception. Iran’s foreign policy is mostly pragmatic and defensive. Perhaps Iran’s most prominent international policy of recent years was its signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the deal with the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Even those who believe the deal was flawed (what human creation is not?) cannot say Iran’s commitment to it was destabilizing. (One case in point is the article published in Foreign Policy by the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet, Carmi Gillon, who said the JCPOA had a “positive impact” on Israeli security.)
What of Iran’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan? In both cases, after the fall of the Saddam Hussein and Taliban regimes, the Iranians gave significant help to Western officials to persuade Iraqis and Afghans to accept democratic institutions (and in the Afghan case were thanked at the time for this by U.S. diplomats). Since then, the Iranians have consistently — like the United States, Britain, and others — supported the fledgling democratic governments in both countries. Iran has been criticized for supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, but those militias have been important, if not crucial, in defeating the Islamic State there. The United States may deplore the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, but supporting it as the Iranians have can hardly be called destabilizing. There is a strong case for saying, at least for the countries bordering Iran, where Tehran considers stability and security most important, that Iranian policy has consistently favored stability. That has been the declared policy of Iranian governments, and it is not difficult to see why. Unlike more distant powers, the Iranians have permanent interests in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and they suffer when there is instability — not least from massive refugee flows and drug trafficking problems.
As for Iran’s alleged pursuit of regional hegemony, it is true that Iran is relatively stronger today in the Middle East compared with before 2001. But the plain fact is that this is the direct result of U.S. action in destroying Saddam and the Taliban, Iran’s enemies. The United States dropped Iran’s gains in its lap. For Washington to now point at Iran’s relative strength in accusing it of pursuing hegemony, as not only Tillerson but CIA Director Mike Pompeo has also done, is perverse.
It is also improbable. In some circles in Washington and elsewhere, one hears analogies comparing Iran to the Soviet Union. This is nonsense — notably because Iran is just not structured as an expansionist or militaristic state. Its defense spending is 3 percent of GDP, compared with Saudi Arabia’s 10.4 percent and Israel’s 5.8 percent (2016 figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). In the 1980s, the figure for the Soviet Union was 15 to 17 percent.
It should be clear enough that to pursue a policy of regime change for faulty reasons would be foolish in itself. But setting that aside, how might the U.S. government go about it? Does Washington have any realistic means at its disposal?
Tillerson suggests that the Islamic Republic could be undone if the United States supports elements within Iran that want to bring about “peaceful transition.” One can only hope that he does not mean the Iranian émigré opposition group that calls itself the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which was known originally as the MKO, and also by a number of other titles and acronyms. This group has bamboozled various significant neoconservative figures in the United States (as well as politicians in other countries), claims to be the prime opposition to the Islamic regime, and has recently disavowed violence. But it began as a paramilitary Marxist/Islamic outfit opposed to the former Shah of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. Before the 1979 revolution, it carried out a number of terrorist acts, killing U.S. servicemen in Iran among others. After 1979, it lost out to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers in a violent power struggle and went into exile in Iraq, where it fought alongside Saddam against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. That alliance with Saddam damned the NCRI/MKO forever in the eyes of most Iranians, and today it has zero political traction within Iran. In exile, the group has morphed into a kind of cult, taking the property of its adherents, separating them from family and subjecting them to brainwashing techniques. Anyone who thinks it offers a better future for Iran, not to mince words, is a fool.
What other levers might the Trump administration have in mind? In the summer and autumn of 2009, there were massive demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere in the country, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. The demonstrators believed that the regime had falsified the election results to put Ahmadinejad back in office. The opposition to Ahmadinejad was called the Green Movement, and some of the demonstrators chanted “death to the dictator,” but the leaders of the movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were clear throughout that they were disputing the election result, not seeking to overturn the Islamic Republic (their fellow reformist, former President Mohammad Khatami, had always insisted similarly that he wanted to reform the government, not overturn it).
So there is dissent and support for reform within Iran, but it is far from clear that it is necessarily aligned with the sort of transition that would satisfy the Trump administration. Plus, the Green Movement was eventually broken by the Islamic regime. Many of its supporters went into exile, and Mousavi and Karroubi are still under house arrest. Support for reform is far from dead, as President Hassan Rouhani’s success in two elections has shown, but the Islamic regime, like it or not, has shown itself to be resilient. It had a scare in 2009, but it had previously survived the Iran-Iraq War, the near-civil war with the MKO in 1980-81, and a number of other shocks. In addition, especially given the long history of foreign meddling in the country (the CIA-inspired coup that removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 is just one example), any suspicion of foreign backing is political poison in Iran.
Wilder voices sometimes suggest that Iran could be destabilized by outside support for separatist minority groups within the country. It is certainly true that minorities make up a sizable portion of the population, perhaps as much as 40 to 50 percent on a maximalist interpretation. And there are significant levels of discontent among some minorities, drawing on discrimination in education, employment, and regional investment among other factors. Of the minorities, the Kurds (10 percent of the total population) have historically been the group pressing hardest for greater autonomy, or full separation. There are separatists also among the Baluchis (2 percent) in southeastern Iran, Arabs in the southwest (2 percent), and some similar voices among the Azeri Turks in the northwest (16 percent).
But Iran is not like the former Yugoslavia or Iraq — a more or less artificial confection recently thrown together. It has an ancient history in the territory it now inhabits; all these peoples have been involved with Iran as a state and as a culture for a very long time; and Iranianness is a powerful force. Iran is more like France in those respects (but even France is a recent creation by comparison) than the Balkans or even its own immediate neighbors. Iran’s largest minority, the Azeris, is the most fully integrated (both the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the opposition presidential candidate in 2009, Mousavi, are of Azeri origin). The Islamic Republic broke the militant force of Kurdish separatism in the 1980s, and most Kurds would be reluctant to try again at U.S. instigation. Plus, of course, this kind of destabilization could not succeed on the basis of “peaceful transition.” It would necessarily be violent, and the track record strongly suggests that it would not succeed.
And even if it could succeed, what would follow? Does the United States really want a destabilized Iran in the Middle East? To add to other more or less failed states in the region like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria? Destabilizing Iran would be like shaking up a kaleidoscope and hoping to get a Titian. It is far from clear that the outcome would be better than what we have now.
A country that is essentially defensive and pragmatic in its foreign policy, and resilient internally, is not a good candidate for regime change. In its effective opposition to the Islamic State and similar groups, and its actions favoring regional stability, Iran deserves at least some praise, rather than blame. The sensible policy would be to accept the existence of the Islamic Republic, to hope for its evolution in a more liberal direction perhaps, but to let Iranians decide that for themselves.
America’s talk of regime change in Iran is really a kind of self-indulgence; picking at the scab of the 1979-81 hostage crisis, and hitting back at one of former President Barack Obama’s genuine foreign-policy achievements for purely internal domestic political reasons. But that kind of language could eventually lead to war, to everyone’s detriment. The leadership of the free world demands more maturity and more common sense.
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